Excluded Tenancies and Licences

Part of Clause 31 – in the House of Commons at 10:30 pm on 9th November 1988.

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Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 10:30 pm, 9th November 1988

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) for drawing attention to the importance of rural housing in England. I hope that my hon. Friend, who I know is proud of his English constituency, will not object to me, a Scot representing a Scottish constituency, taking part in this important debate on rural housing in England and Wales. After all, I live close to the English border. Indeed, I can see a number of rural houses in north Northumberland from my house.

I was particularly interested to hear my hon. Friend refer to the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976 which was enacted under the previous Labour Government when my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Happily, he was able to steer that important piece of legislation through Parliament, affording some protection to tenants in tied housing in England and Wales.

The sad irony is that that Labour Government were not able to put similar legislation on the statute book for Scotland. My hon. Friend was able to protect farm workers in England and Wales, but in Scotland farm workers still have to cope with the old oppressive tied housing system, under which it is all too easy for tenants and their families to be evicted.

I am disturbed to hear that the amendment could undermine the protection that has been made available for tenants of tied housing in England and Wales. The 1976 Act was an important development in respect of such employees. It was said in another place that this provision was intended to deal with the problem of non-paying guests in farm cottages. Given the terms of contract to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) referred, a high proportion of farm workers could be described as non-paying guests in the sense that they do not pay rent—but they give something in lieu of rent, by selling their labour very cheaply.

The agricultural wages boards set wages far too low, and all too many farmers, in England and Wales as well as in Scotland, pay only the basic wage. Their employees are provided with "free" accommodation as a perk, if it may be so described. It is often not really free, because the employees often pay dearly for what is often very bad accommodation by selling their labour far too cheaply. It is both offensive and misleading to suggest that such tenants are non-paying guests. They pay through the nose, or, more appropriately, by the sweat of their brows. Easing the eviction of tenants and their families in those circumstances would be an intolerable step for the House to sanction.

10.45 pm

A further problem will face the tenants of tied accommodation who work in farming and in other industries, with the introduction in Scotland of the poll tax in April. Hitherto, employers have paid the rates due on tied accommodation on behalf of their employees. In future, there will be a tax on the occupiers rather than on the property. There is no guarantee that tenants will have any more in their wage packets, yet they will suddenly find themselves having to pay the poll tax, while the farmer no longer has to pay any rates. The farmer will end up better off while his employees will be worse off.

I am profoundly disturbed that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, this provision could represent another retrograde step by the Government and undermine the already weak position of farm workers in rural areas. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to several disturbing aspects of rural poverty and housing pressure in England and Wales, and I hope that the House will give them serious consideration.